Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Last week I had a nasty bout of stomach flu. One of those batten down the hatches, no food for two days, self-quarantined episodes that wiped me out for a solid two days. But as queasy as I felt for those few days, it was nothing compared with how sickened and nauseous I felt last night (March 21, 2016) watching Donald J. Trump be received with applause and fervor at AIPAC.
For the first few months of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump appeared to be a modern-day King Ahashverosh. He was full of cartoonish puffery and bluster, making outlandish policy statements such as building a wall with Mexico and having Mexico pay for it. Many, myself included, thought Trump might be running as some life-imitates-art reality TV show about running for president. His candidacy was a joke, we were all in on it, and sooner or later he would exit stage right and the real, serious candidates would show up.
But the last several weeks have shown that the only thing to exit stage right was Trump’s Ahashverosh shtick. Instead, he has morphed into a modern-day Haman, a dangerous and frightening demagogue. His entire campaign is now centered on stoking anger, grievances and resentment against people of other races, religions and nationalities. He has stated that Mexicans who come to America are rapists and drug dealers; that all Muslims should be barred from entering the U.S.; that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s criticisms of him at a debate were due to her menstruating; and on and on. Worse than the specifics of what he has said, though, is the way he says it. A fascinating yet frightening New York Times study of everything Trump said publicly over the course of a week in December revealed that:
1) He has a particular habit of saying “you” and “we” as he inveighs against a dangerous “them” or unnamed other — usually outsiders like illegal immigrants (“they’re pouring in”), Syrian migrants (“young, strong men”) and Mexicans, but also leaders of both political parties.
2) Mr. Trump tends to attack a person rather than an idea or a situation, like calling political opponents “stupid” (at least 30 times), “horrible” (14 times), “weak” (13 times) and other names, and criticizing foreign leaders, journalists and so-called anchor babies.
3) The specter of violence looms over much of his speech, which is infused with words like kill, destroy and fight.
4) And Mr. Trump uses rhetoric to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media, according to specialists in political rhetoric.
Most recently, he has linked violence, passion, anger and love of country to support dangerous conduct at his rallies. He has publicly endorsed the thuggish actions of his supporters who have beaten up protesters at his rallies, saying that he would “like to punch him [a protestor] in the face” and has considering paying their legal fees. And he continues to have attendees at his rallies to raise their right hands, “Heil Hitler”-style, and pledge loyalty to him. Nor is this condemnation of Trump a partisan issue.
It’s hard to imagine demagoguery more egregious than this. On Purim, we are taught to use graggers to drown out Haman’s name during the reading of the Megillah. We are taught to refuse to respect those whose words perpetuate evil, hatred, and destruction. So where were the Jews drowning out this modern-day Haman, inside our own home at the AIPAC conference? To their credit, there were hundreds of rabbis and other Jews who did walk out on Trump. I applaud their courage and respectfully disagree with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz who criticized them for doing so. But what about the thousands upon thousands who stayed, gave Trump respect he did not deserve, and–worst of all–applauded him and shouted jubilantly in support while he spoke.
I do not blame AIPAC for Trump’s presence; after all, they have a long-standing policy of inviting candidates from both parties who are running for President to speak. Nor is this a Democrat vs. Republican partisan issue–I was glad that Governor Kasich addressed the crowd and was disappointed that Senator Sanders did not attend. This is about giving Jewish support to a hate-monger. I would have loved to see every single Jew in that room find some way to express their rejection of Trump and all he stands for, whether by walking out, staying but turning their backs to Trump, putting on headphones, holding up signs or wearing oppositional t-shirts in silent protest, or in some other dignified way expressing that bigotry, misogyny, racism, and intolerance will have no shelter in our midst. Mordehai did not make a Faustian deal with Haman, no matter the political expediency, and neither should we.
I have spent a great deal of time this election season talking to my two sons about the latest developments. As my colleague Rabbi Sirbu points out, it is important that we inform the next generation about important issues and serve as a filter for the vitriol that often comes from cable news and the internet. Part of this process, for me, has been teaching my kids about why Trump’s comments are not just silly but dangerous and why it is incumbent upon each of us to respond to his egregious conduct with action, not indifference. As the election season continues on, I hope and pray that Jews of all stripes, Republicans and Democrats, will clearly and unequivocally denounce Trump-Haman with the graggers of our advocacy, whether online, through conversations with friends and family, or even for those brave enough to protest peacefully at his rallies. We all should clearly and unequivocally denounce this modern-day Haman at every turn. We are better than him.
I would like to dedicate this piece to my late father, Sandford Ratner, z”l, whose fifth yahrzeit is this week and who first taught me about politics and instilled in me a sense of obligation for standing up for one’s principles.